Movie Review: 42- A Formulaic and Sentimental Sports Drama that Entertains with Competent Filmmaking and Fine Performances

42-fp-0292_wide-6863b96e57862f6d9c4c596413a0e69a5d19f4fe-s6-c10Baseball icon Jackie Robinson was the true embodiment of a misunderstood Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin.” Though Jackie Robinson became a symbol of desegregation in post-World War II America where racism, Jim Crow, and prejudice were the home battlefronts he actually was a truer symbol for talent unsought due to the blindness of ignorance. Robinson is a figure already ripe for cinematic portrayal not only due to his incredibly inspirational story but also because of his sympathetic yet complex persona. While the new biopic 42 might not be as inspirational as the actual figure of Robinson himself there is a unique balance of baseball technicality, social commentary, and uncomfortable authenticity that makes it a slightly less than typical sports biopic. Director and writer Brian Helgeland—best known for his screenwriting abilities for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River—never shines away from the threats and challenges that faced Jackie Robinson on his journey making the more brutally honest portions of his script that highlights the true drama. Though 42 drifts in and out of formulaic inspirational tripe those predictable moments are few and far between and are usually forgotten once you’re fully engaged in the fine performances from the actors on the screen, especially relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman. At times charming and often times challenging in its realism, 42 is a relatively admirable biopic worthy of showcasing the man Jackie Robinson was and how he struggled to become the man he needed to be. This is a film case where the more interesting story of overcoming personal flaws is shadowed by the desire to only focus on the legend itself, which is admirable though a slightly wasted opportunity. While it never reaches the classic realm of previous sports films like Rudy or gets caught up in the detailed drama of a sport like Downhill Racer, Brian Helgeland’s 42 is definitely a sports film worth pursuing despite the fact that it doesn’t ever live up to the towering legacy of an extraordinary man and feels as though it’s a tonal replica of The Natural.

Inspirational sports dramas have eased into a comfortable formula of flamboyant storytelling mixed with a larger than life presentation making it difficult for any film in the genre to stand out as original or truly captivating. Helgeland does indeed follow the formula and a great deal of the film suffers from the unsurprising plot structure and the Disneyfication of the subject matter, but the luckily for the film the inspiration is still present. Since Helgeland is known for his grittily realistic scripts, such as Payback and Man on Fire, 42 seemed like an odd deviation for his writing abilities, which might explain why he stuck closely with the formulary approach to the genre. The film follows Jackie Robinson from his time in the all black baseball league playing for Kentucky and his eventual move to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers where the true struggles of acceptance met him in full force. When 42 delves into the scenes of racial struggle and uncomfortable prejudice, which almost becomes a catalyst for breaking down and giving up for Jackie Robinson, there is a devout authenticity that doesn’t shy away from showcasing the real burden of bigotry. Though some of the film’s characters and side storylines come off as the antithesis of nuanced or subtle that can mostly be forgiven when you see its relation to the overall storyline. Basically Helgeland has set his sights on making an uplifting tribute to the legend of Jackie Robinson instead of the man Jackie Robinson and succeeds in the fact that it knows that sentimental filmmaking can be entertaining despite the weightiness of formula. 42 might not be a pure inspirational sports drama but it is certainly a multi-faceted human drama that blends exciting baseball sequences with genuine emotional portrayals making it an uplifting if predictable experience.

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While Brian Helgeland’s admiration for the legend of Jackie Robinson might have made his script slightly rigid and void of nuance it certainly did him a service in his fine direction of the crisp looking sports drama. It’s clear from the tightly executed sequences throughout 42 that Helgeland not only had a deep respect for the figure of Jackie Robinson but also the game of baseball itself. Cinematographer Don Burgess was a wise choice because his intuition for capturing tonally opposite events, such as quick action (Source Code, Spiderman) and close up drama (Forrest Gump), aided the picture in both the riveting baseball sequences and the dramatically human elements. The full utilization of the classic intimate baseball venues not only heighten the anticipation and explosiveness of the game but serve as an appropriate setting for the vitriolic insults that surrounded Jackie Robinson. Helgeland isn’t necessarily known for his directing since his last picture directed picture was 10 years ago and his usual trade is in screenwriting, but his obvious passion for the material he penned could only be directed by someone who appreciated Jackie Robinson the legend, which he clearly did. At times the crisp cinematography unintentionally heightens the predictable nature of the formulaic sports drama, especially near the obligatory big moment end, but it is also used appropriately in highlighting the time period, the emotional tone of the scenes, and the overall uplifting feeling of the picture. 42 won’t be receiving any notable recognition for its technical achievements but since it’s a tactfully made film by a filmmaker whose lack of experience could have been a detriment it becomes an arguable success. Everything about 42 hinged on the success of choosing a truly inspirational actor to portray a truly inspirational figure and they certainly found that performance in actor Chadwick Boseman.

Helgeland’s script doesn’t give any of the characters ample material to be portrayed in earnest fashion beyond typical archetypes serving a plot, but there are some shining moments especially for newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson. Boseman has the grace, the edge, and the charm to be a successful movie star and his portrayal of Robinson shows some layers of vulnerability, anger, and perseverance in a script that demands more iconography rather than honest humility. He has the movements and the charm of Robinson that is expected in a biopic so he carries the entire picture on his graceful shoulders where the performance was the essential element to making the film anything more than average. Alongside Boseman is an appropriately over the top Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey who mumbles through his cigar with an exuberant charm that is all too typical of sports dramas but doesn’t do this one any disservice. Most of the other actors have the unchallenging obligation to be the evolving party on the topic of desegregation that is reminiscent of Remember the Titans and has an equally embellished progression. This doesn’t mean that actors Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca) or Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese) don’t do an admirable job in their parts, but rather it means that they weren’t given opportunities to flesh out their characters with much complexity. One of the highlighted performances comes from Alan Tudyk as the obnoxiously racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman who really brings to light the hurdles of bigotry and the challenge of meeting your opponent on a higher moral ground. If it weren’t for the fine performances, limited in complexity or not, 42 wouldn’t have been as entertaining or uplifting as it is originally set out to become and succeeds based on its undeniable charm.

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The inspirational sports drama has an expected audience for attendance so it’s unsurprising that it hasn’t risked deviating from the genre’s more formulaic tendencies. Despite this crutch there are plenty of films that adopt the formula and use it as an appropriate template for success rather than a lazy template of expected results. Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s 42 amply creates an appropriately uplifting story about baseball legend Jackie Robinson that is entertaining though not exactly as inspirational as the man himself. This is an example of competent filmmaking that could have been truly inspiring had it broken away from the predictable structure of the sports drama genre. 42 works best as an introduction to the legend of Jackie Robinson for those who are perhaps unfamiliar with him. Though the film fails to really delve deep into the real character of Jackie Robinson it is still dramatically compelling due to a multi-faceted presentation of human drama, social commentary, and an intriguing look into baseball technicality. The flaws within the film 42 can ultimately be forgiven because the overall sentimental experience becomes entertaining and uplifting when it could have been become obnoxious melodramatic tripe.

Grade: B-

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